Written by Lindsey Lowe Osborne
Photo by Eric Dejuan
I don’t want to ruin George Cowgill’s image here. The guy definitely has one. It’s clear by looking at him that he doesn’t mess around; I don’t like to subscribe to stereotypes, but the muscles don’t lie. He could take you. He could take me. He could take both of us at one time.
But when I sat down to talk with Cowgill about the ventures he’s becoming known for—fire fighting, restaurant owning, book writing—he was almost sheepish about his accomplishments. “I’ve met a lot of interesting people along the way,” he says. “I think I’ve been lucky.”
Cowgill, 41, grew up in the same Birmingham neighborhood where he now works, East Lake. His dad fought fire here, and it was always Cowgill’s dream to do the same. But being a firefighter is a big responsibility, he explains—you have to be home every third day to work a 24-hour shift. “I was 18, 19 years old. I was in a band, and we were touring. It conflicted with that every third day, being in a building and not leaving,” he says. When he graduated from high school (he went to Huffman High School), he worked odd jobs, mostly as a waiter. A few years later, he got into bartending. In 1994, Cowgill joined Birmingham punk band Exhaust, which became the first Birmingham band to tour the U.S., as a vocalist. He stayed in that role until 1999, when the group disbanded. From 1996 to 1999, he also owned and operated UNITY 1605, a punk rock band venue downtown.
Then, in 2000, something happened that helped this punk rock kid grow up: His daughter, Janey, was born. “I grew up. That’s the simple answer,” Cowgill says. “She’s awesome, such a good kid. She couldn’t be better.” The next year, he embarked on his first big creative project, a documentary called 0274, which he wrote and directed. The film delves into the tragedy of a prescription drug mishap. Cowgill went on a nationwide tour to promote the film. “Back then I was writing a lot and my sister worked for a law firm at the time. She told me about this specific trial, and I was fascinated by the sound of it. It sounded like a story that really needed to be told. I couldn’t let it go,” he explains. “Once I got permission from the family and attorneys to follow the trial, I shopped it around and got a little bit of backing. I grabbed my best friend to do sound and hired two camera folk and we traveled and shot the whole thing. I loved doing film and would love to do another, but what draws me into writing more so than film is with writing, it’s just me. No one else’s schedule, no one else’s opinions, and no one else’s procrastination. Just my own.”
After years of bartending and managing bars and restaurants (though, he points out, he has never tasted alcohol, because he’s seen the trouble it can cause up close), he decided to open his own bar; in 2006, he brought Speakeasy to downtown Birmingham. That same year, he also made another dream reality: He became a firefighter for the city of Birmingham, just like his dad was—at Station 19, just like his dad. “It’s the oldest station in the city, and it’s the busiest station in the state,” Cowgill says. “It’s also the only Birmingham station with a fire pole. I used to slide down it when I was 5 or 6.
“I love it. I just love it,” he says. “I love having a job that I think matters. I grew up with my dad as my hero—he still is. He’s a tough guy; he’s the first one in on a fire, and I’ve tried to match that. I think I’ve been pretty successful in matching it. I get in trouble for excessively fighting fires; I mean, it’s a rush, too.”
Alongside business partner Elise Youngblood, Cowgill opened the Black Market Bar & Grill in 2009, which now has two locations, one on Highway 280 and one in Five Points (Speakeasy morphed into the Five Points location in 2012.) Cowgill can be found there most nights, making sure things are running smoothly. And even when he’s not, it has his mark all over it: firefighter and punk rock memorabilia decorate the walls. It’s cheekily called the “home of the evil bartenders.” Janey is listed on the website (evilbartenders.com) as one of the kingpins in the evil empire. As Cowgill says, “It looks like someone like me owns it.”
It’s clear that Cowgill is interested in lots of diverse endeavors. One more that he has added to the list is writing, something he’s been doing for a long time (he did all of the writing for 0274, too.) “My whole life, I’ve always said that when I grow up, I was going to be a writer,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I was in punk bands and waited tables and bartended forever. But I always knew I was going to become a firefighter and a writer.” Cowgill published An Account of Nothing in 2014, which is a collection of essays he first published on his blog. The book explores life in East Lake, as a firefighter, and more. And he’s seen a lot of things, especially as a firefighter. “There’s a common misconception with firefighters that we only run fire, but we run any sort of trauma, injury, or emergency,” Cowgill explains. “I’ve seen a lot of fire, a lot of murder,” he says. “An Account of Nothing is all true, every single word. It’s a side of the city that you don’t get to see.” His second collection is due soon, and he’s also working on a fiction novel, Fake Days of Gold, or The 23-7. On his days off, you can find him at Crestwood Coffee Company, writing and editing, often with Janey set up next to him (she’s 14 now and wants to be a writer, too.)
I asked Cowgill how he does everything: fire fighting every third day, writing in the afternoons, overseeing two restaurants, spending time with Janey and his fiancée, Diana. He says more often than not, it’s sleep that he sacrifices—but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Besides, the guy likes coffee. “I’ve got the two bars and the fire fighting, and I love all my jobs,” he says. “I would do them for free. ”
An Account of Nothing is available at Little Professor in Homewood, Books-A-Million, and Amazon.